Papa's Got a Brand New Drag

"Everybody's Talking About Jamie" and "No Ordinary Man"

Papa's Got a Brand New Drag
Max Harwood in “Eveerybody’s Talking. About Jamie”

Amazon’s latest streaming “original” is “Everybody’s Talking About Jamie,” a filmed adaptation of a 2017 stage musical adaptation of a 2011 BBC documentary about a 16-year-old British boy coming out as a drag queen. If you think most of the edges have been sanded off this story by now, you’re right – the movie’s perfectly pleasant without feeling at all revelatory or urgent. The harmonies are nice, Max Harwood is a charmer in the lead role, and dear old Richard E. Grant is on hand as the boy’s drag mentor – remind me to give “Withnail & I” (1987) its propers in this space sometime. But Sarah Lancashire, who’s apparently in every British TV show these days, is stuck in the soggy role of Jamie’s loving doormat of a Mum, and she gets a soggy new song to sing in the final act. Worse, even with roadblocks to the kid’s dreams of stiletto-heeled glory in the forms of a bigoted dad (Ralph Ineson), a bullying classmate (Samuel Bottomley), and a dream-crushing teacher (Sharon Horgan, of all people), there’s precious little sense of conflict. It’s a cheerful, upbeat, bloodless affair – fine viewing for those who don’t want to feel too challenged.

“No Ordinary Man,” which comes to Apple TV and other streaming platforms this week, is tougher fare on a similar subject, which both limits its audience while boosting its credibility. Directed by Aisling Chin-Yee and Chase Joynt, it’s a documentary about Billy Tipton, the jazz pianist who was revealed at his 1989 death to have been a woman passing as male for almost the entirety of his adult life. You may remember the story and the daytime talk shows that descended on Tipton’s widow and adopted children – all of them as surprised as anyone else – with a glee reserved for sideshow freaks. That was then, and clips of the family’s appearances on Oprah and Sally Jesse Raphael are a mortifying reminder of how far we’ve come in only three decades.

“No Ordinary Man” is more focused – arguably too focused – on Tipton’s meaning(s) to the LGBTQ+ community today, in particular to a group of actors who show up to audition for the role of the musician (in what context it’s not clear) and who discuss their lives as transgender men. The movie’s ultimately as didactic as it is moving and it leans heavily on talking heads – unavoidable, perhaps, when no actual film footage of Tipton exists. Still, it hits a nerve of raw emotion when it shows the musician’s aging son, Billy Tipton Jr., deeply touched when his father is called “one of our grandfathers” by a generation that has battled for freedoms Tipton himself would have found unthinkable. “Everybody’s Talking About Jamie” may be the slicker affair, but it’s a much safer one.

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